Saturday, December 31, 2011
A TWO-point night -- Game 36: Capitals 3 - Sabres 1
Last night, Caps fans got a glimpse of what that was like once more as Alex Ovechkin potted a pair of goals, Nicklas Backstrom had one of his own, and Tomas Vokoun showed fans why he was such a steal when he was signed as a free agent as the Washington Capitals defeated the Buffalo Sabres, 3-1, at Verizon Center.
OK, so one of Ovechkin’s goals was fluky, but such is the way of all top end performers. The .350 hitter in baseball gets the check-swing single. The 30-point scorer in basketball has the shot go high off the iron and drop in once in a while. The quarterback has his past deflected into the hands of an unintended receiver in the end zone. It happens.
In Ovechkin’s case, it was a harmless enough looking play that got him and the Caps started. With Mike Weber off for boarding 27 seconds into the game and the Caps on a power play, Tomas Vokoun dropped the puck for Ovechkin at the side of the Caps’ net. Ovechkin wheeled around the cage with the puck and headed up the right side. Allowed to build a head of steam as the Sabres were changing personnel on the fly, Ovechkin charged into the Buffalo defensive zone, eluding an attempt at a hip check by Braden McNabb. When Christian Erhoff slid over to try to interrupt Ovechkin’s progress, Ovechkin spotted Brooks Laich steaming down the middle with position on Paul Gaustad. Ovechkin sent a pass to Laich, but the puck clicked off Erhoff’s stick and fluttered past goalie Ryan Miller into the back of the net for Ovechkin’s lucky 13th goal of the season.
Nicklas Backstrom got what would be the game-winner in the second period by closing the deal on an amazing passing sequence. It started with what every coach tears his hair out over – a turnover at the opponent’s blue line. Lindy Ruff was doing the hair pulling when Derek Roy made a lazy pass from the right wing boards in hopes of finding Robyn Regehr at the other end of it. But Alexander Semin intercepted the pass and started the other way:
When Semin reached the red line, he dropped the puck for Alex Ovechkin crossing behind him:
Ovechkin headed into the Buffalo zone with three defenders closing on him:
With the three defenders about to swallow him up, Ovechkin fed Roman Hamrlik on the left side:
With two defenders still marking Ovechkin and Mike Weber sliding over to the puck-carrier, Hamrlik centers the puck to Alexander Semin trailing the play:
Semin one-times the puck to Nicklas Backstrom between the hash marks, and although the Sabre defenders have created what looks like a defensive halo around Backstrom, none are in a position to defend what comes next:
Backstrom flicks the puck past an out-of-position Ryan Miller:
After Jochen Hecht got the Sabres within one before the second intermission, Ovechkin got the insurance goal after the break. It was more spiffy passing, this time an oldie but a goodie. Folks will probably remember the pass from Nicklas Backstrom to Alex Ovechkin for the one-timer that rocketed past a lunging Ryan Miller, and that was sweet. But what set it up might have been sweeter. Dmitry Orlov collected a loose puck at the boards in the Caps end and shuffled it up and out of the zone. When the puck found its way to Alexander Semin at the red line, Semin gently nudged a backhand pass to Backstrom heading the other way, just as Robyn Regehr was about to drill Semin from behind. Semin took the hit, Backstrom took the puck, and the Caps were off and running with Ovechkin sealing the deal on the win.
-- It was the first time in 27 games that Ovechkin recorded a multi-goal game, the last coming on October 29th against Vancouver. He now has points in his last five games (4-3-7).
-- Nicklas Backstrom just keeps plugging along. His goal and assist makes him 2-4-6 in his last five games and leaves him in a tie for 12th in league scoring (13-25-38). He also wins the coupon for the all-you-can-eat buffet – a goal, an assist, plus-2, three shot attempts, one shot on goal, two takeaways, three blocked shots, and he won 10 of 18 draws.
-- And there is Alexander Semin, who is quietly finding a rhythm in his game. His two assists on the night make him 4-4-8, plus-6 in his last six games. He could have had two assists on the Backstrom goal, getting Ovechkin started with momentum into the Buffalo zone to start things, then setting up Backstrom in the slot for the goal.
-- It was a matter of skill in this one, the Caps taking advantage of opportunities from Sabre defensive breakdowns, just as they took advantage in the game against the Rangers on Wednesday. They managed only 40 shot attempts in 60 minutes, but they did get a good percentage of those attempts on goal (53 percent). And of the eight missed shots the Caps had, Ovechkin had four of them. His nine attempts reflected an increasing willingness to shoot the puck.
-- At the other end, the Caps blocked almost as many shots (23) as the Sabres directed on net (26). Thirteen different skaters recorded at least one blocked shot, led by Karl Alzner with four. But the forwards made their contributions, too. Backstrom had three, Troy Brouwer had three, Brooks Laich and Jason Chimera each had a pair.
-- Maybe one of the Caps goalies is grabbing the number one job by the throat. In making 25 saves on 26 shots in the win, Tomas Vokoun has won two in a row (he has not had more consecutive wins since opening the season with six straight victories) and has stopped 72 of the last 75 shots he has faced (.960 save percentage).
In the end, the Caps are now 6-3-1 in their last ten games and have allowed only 22 goals in those games. Since dropping a 5-1 decision to Philadelphia, the Caps have allowed only 12 goals in seven games. And now, the Young Guns are making more consistent contributions with the return of Mike Green on the horizon. The Caps are going to need to get some more out of the third and fourth lines and will need to solve that second line problem. But the best players have to be the best players, too. This week, they have been.